Bodie State Historical Park in the high altitude Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains in California is a fascinating glimpse into the past. Bodie is a gold mining ghost town that as been preserved in a state of “arrested decay” (basically frozen in time) with the interiors of the homes pretty much remaining as they were left with furniture and stores with old goods still on the shelves.
William S. Bodey found gold there in 1859 so he decided to stay the winter and establish his claim. This was a bad choice as this area is at high altitude (above 8,000 feet) and the winters there are very harsh. Bodey sadly died there (froze to death!), but the word got around and by 1861 a mill was established there to process rocks to find precious metals. Although spelt differently the town was named after Bodey.
By 1877 the Standard Company had the rights to the main mine and by 1880 the town had a population of 10,000 people and 65 saloons to entertain them (amongst other sordid pastimes)! The gold rush was on and people wanted to get rich quick! It became a lawless, rough and tough mining town where murders were apparently a very common occurrence.
Yet normal life went on. There were stores, hotels, schools, churches and so on. Now these buildings provide a snapshot of the last days of Bodie.
What is fascinating about this place is that it is in the middle of nowhere high up in the mountains of the Mono Basin desert. The current road from the highway is 13 miles long (the last 3 are unpaved), but back in the day there was no road or railway to the town so everything was brought in by mules and wagons (this included all the wood as there are no trees out there and the heavy mining equipment). Later there was a railway line purely for the shipping of wood to run steam engines that were used in the processing of precious metals but otherwise there was no other real viable option than by the mules.
This remoteness of Bodie is why so much of the mining equipment and personal possessions of the people who lived there remains today. It was simply too expensive to ship it out of there when the gold and silver eventually ran out ($32 million in gold and around $7 million in silver was mined there!).
The boom time for Bodie was not long. After 1881 the mining slowed and people along with businesses started to leave the town. A big fire destroyed a lot of the town in 1892 (mostly wooden buildings) which could have been the demise of the town completely, but new mining processes (including the use of cyanide – yes really safe practices back then) and the introduction of one of the first electricity plants in the country kept things going for a little longer. In 1932 another massive fire destroyed around 95% of the town and that was pretty much it for Bodie.
Around 100 buildings survive today including the main mill (some of the buildings are now occupied by Park Rangers). James Cain the banker of the town had a lot of money invested in Bodie and hired an armed guard to protect the remaining buildings and contents. He basically kept the place safe until it was handed over to the State (some people remained living there up until this time too).
Bodie became a National Historic Site and a State Historic Park in 1962. I am so glad I took the time to visit this ghost town and was surprised how many other people were there when it opened at 9am.
If you are ever out that way in California please make sure you take a visit. It is really fascinating, and take the free Stamp Mill tour to learn about the old mining process in the mill which is otherwise out-of-bounds (health and safety was not a priority in the 1800’s and let’s just say a mill workers life was not a long one!).
I spent about 3 hours exploring Bodie and could easily have spent more if I didn’t have to get back to Reno, Nevada. It is a fascinating place to visit not only for the buildings and remains of residents past but also just for the remote location and scenery. Alas I saw no ghosts, but staying there at night might just be a different story…